Mentors, those who never ask to be leaders yet somehow find themselves as such, are a rarity nowadays. In the past, you would find grizzled, seasoned veterans of their trade willing to pass on invaluable insights and practices to the younger generation. On the other hand, in today’s age, universities have taken on that role; where you would have once needed only on-the-job training by an experienced worker, you now need a degree. It has been such a shift that the very thought of having a mentor seems antiquated, so much so that if you ask people who their mentors are, more than likely they will have none. And yet, mentors can have massive impacts on the lives of those who follow them. So here today, I want to discuss the importance of mentors and why you should seek one out, rare as they are.
What is a mentor and why do I need one?
Well, a mentor is similar to a role model, but imagine having a role model that you can talk to, bounce ideas off of, and develop a rapport. Here’s an example: You are a tennis player. You admire one of the top 10 guys; in fact, he is your role model. You always looked at him from the outside, admiring his game and his attitude on the court, and so you did your best to duplicate it—and by doing so hopefully bring your game up to his level. One day, he asks you to come and practice with him. You leap at the opportunity, and you see first-hand how he plays, and you can ask him about his tactics, his backhand, how he creates angles around the court. But he destroys you on the scoreboard. He is so skilled, so fluid, and you realize you have so much more to learn.
Hopefully at this point you can see that there is a prodigious difference between a role model and a mentor. Firstly, role models are outside your sphere of communication; mentors are within it. Role models also have no way to contribute to your development except by setting an example; mentors, however, have an interactive role in your development. Role models are faraway figures of professionalism and expertise; mentors are tangible educational tools to help with your development. See the difference?
What will a mentor give me that I don’t already have if I have a university degree?
This is an important question. I mentioned earlier that universities have taken on the role that mentors once did; however, universities operate much differently than mentors. Universities operate largely on the theoretic side of careers—that means that they develop your technical and analytical skills. Ergo, unfortunately, the practical skills of your chosen career—the down-and-dirty every-day situational skills you need have—aren’t really covered. A great example of this vacuous omission is how teachers go through their post-secondary education before actually becoming teachers. A four year undergraduate degree needs to be completed and, after that, another two year program that deals with pedagogical theory is deemed necessary. Great. That’s a lot of theory, but where’s the practical component? The part where, you know, you actually get to teach? Get feedback? Talk to a superior about the class? Work together with an experienced instructor to evaluate students’ assignments? Many times, a teacher’s first day of teaching is a nerve-racking thing, and many times they feel completely unprepared to teach. It is important that these instructors have a resource they can use, an experienced individual that can guide them through this troubling time.
So, when you find that job you have been pursuing and you find yourself lost and looking for some practical advice regarding your career, you should try to find a mentor. Pick someone in your office or your profession that is responsible, successful, and charismatic. Everyone respects him/her. Try to strike up a conversation with that person and develop a professional relationship where you can ask questions comfortably and get good, solid, reliable advice. Remember, you don’t need to tell that special someone that he/she is your mentor; it’s more of a mental selection than anything else. Simply recognise that you look up to that person and they are a well for you to draw on when needed.
What extra perks will having a mentor give me?
My dad always used to say, “Phil, you can learn the hard way, or you can learn the easy way.” He would say this to me when we were working together. Building a fence, changing the oil, etc. Now, the hard way was the grind, trying to stumble through whatever task I was trying to do, figuring it out for myself. The easy way was watching someone with experience and letting that person take me through the necessary steps in an efficient manner. Obviously my dad was the experienced one. Having a relationship with someone experienced in the tasks you need to do is a wonderful benefit. In fact, it’s the easiest way to improve yourself.
Are there any caveats to having a mentor?
Yes. This special person you’ve selected may be completely unaware that you look up to them. And as such, when you ask for advice, it is extremely important to should show your mentor respect. The last thing you want to do is use their experience callously without showing any sort of respect. Please take care and treat your coworkers, especially the grizzled, experienced veterans, the respect they deserve.
Mentoring is a lost art. I know it’s antiquated, and universities have largely taken on the role of the mentor. But when you are just starting out and you feel yourself floundering in your workplace, find someone that knows the ropes, all the ins and outs to the business and the profession. Having a relationship that is dynamic, that gives good, constructive feedback, is invaluable.